‘A night for growing up’: how a terrifying college ‘prank’ taught me about fear | Life and style

A few weeks into my first fall semester of college, I left our library around 11pm to walk to my dorm. The New England campus was quiet. The air smelled like pine trees and old rain, and my mind was full of Robert Hass, the California poet whose words I had been introduced to in class that week.

His poems were full of droopy trees and fog-soaked mornings, and I was surprised how swiftly my longing for Oregon had gotten caught between his words, gathering like lint in a comb. The nostalgia flustered me, revealing a homesickness I had so far kept tamped down.

That was what I was thinking as I kicked my sneakers through the moonlit grass: how sorely I wanted a sign. A sign I belonged here, a place where people referred to “the city” and only meant one place, New York, even though many took planes to arrive, passing over other cities as they went.

As I rounded the curve of a shadowy path about 200 yards from my front door, I saw a pack of guys walking toward me through the trees. I do not know whether to call them men or boys. I could not tell if they were talking, but they had the straight gait of people who were not engaged in conversation but purpose. Their bodies were muscular, solid as a wall of trees.

Some sparkplug in the root of my spine told me to panic, but I was what my parents called “jumpy” and I was trying to learn to control it. Besides, this was a small town of students and retirees on the Maine coast. I was used to seeing others returning from the library at this hour, and I imagined the group would murmur hello as we slouched past one other.

They did not. When we were a few feet apart, the line of guys formed a tight semi-circle around me. They did not speak, but they stared, and when I looked back, I saw their faces were masked in white cotton T-shirts, with slits for eyes and mouth. The white athletic socks they wore on their hands turned their fingers into paws.

I do not need to tell you what my heart did in those moments, or for the rest of the night or for the nights that followed. What happened to my body is that it froze. The men were frozen too. It was a terrible dance. The moon gaped above us.

Pray, I thought. Also: Prey.

Nobody talked. I waited for their hands to reach for me; they did not. Finally, my body pushed through their bodies and ran. Nobody followed.

Years later, in graduate school, I found an old version of Little Red Riding Hood in the University of Minnesota archive. The library said it was from 1911; online someone estimated it closer to the 1890s. The book had a Kewpie-like girl on the cover, described inside as “rather forgetful, as you know, she did not think enough when she was told to do, or not to do something, that was why she was naughty sometimes, she did not mean to be, but she ‘forgot’”.

She reminded me I could not see the “symbolic biology” of the wolf without seeing what – whom – the “beast” was supposed to be chasing. In the original telling of Little Red, she is punished for being spoiled, gullible and absentminded, and the wolf is animated in her inverse. He is scrappy, wry, cunning. Little Red’s problem is not that she has happened upon bad luck, it is that she has bad wiring. The villainy of wolf is propped up by the foolishness of girl.

“The prey controls the predator,” a biologist who worked in government wolf management once told me. It was a well-known maxim in the field, that you could not study one without the other. This meant one thing in an ecosystem such as Yellowstone national park, but his logic could be applied to stories about other species too.

Within minutes of arriving back at my dorm, I called campus security and reported the masked men. The next day, an officer called me to confirm their identity on camera footage.

Their headquarters was behind the little white house where I had just attended my first student newspaper meeting, and I kept my head low as I walked the driveway, trying not to feel like a snitch. A friendly man with a baritone voice ushered me on to the edge of a plastic office chair, where I watched a stream of silent video that showed the men keying into one of the dorms, jostling one another in the foyer like herded cows.

“That’s them,” I said. The officer ran a hand through his hair, shaking his head. “Creepy as heck with their faces and hands covered like that.” I nodded. What else was there to say?

These were the faces I would think of, years later, when reading about the ancient warrior men who, masqueraded as wolves, did things they would never do as men. The officer told me these were first-year soccer players who had been initiated. That is code for drunk. Hazed. Security staff had already spoken with the guys: they were very sorry about their inebriated “prank”.

“They meant no harm,” he said. That did not make me feel safer, but it did make me feel foolish: like I should have been in on the joke. When he mentioned some names, I recognized one as someone who sat behind me in microeconomics, a guy who had already smiled and retrieved a pencil that I dropped on the floor. He wore the sweatshirt of his boarding school and had the blunt, forgettable attractiveness of a Ken Doll.

Then the officer told me the soccer players did not know whom they had scared, but they wanted to apologize face-to-face. I thought about it. I wanted to see how the men wore sorry across their lips.

But some shard of my teenage self did not want to interfere with the equilibrium of that afternoon economics class, or anything else. I said I didn’t need a personal apology. On one level, it seemed only fair. They had had their masks, and now I could have mine. I wanted to let them think I could be any woman on campus. That I could be anywhere, watching them. That at any moment I may step toward them, collapse the space, open my mouth. That the hunted could play hunter.

Mostly, though, I did not want to be known for my tattletale fear.

In her book Complaint!, Sara Ahmed notes that while a complaint is often necessitated by a crisis, it often becomes part of the crisis too.

At some point after leaving campus security, I got a call from a dean, who apologized for what had happened and mandated that I see a campus mental health counselor. I began to wonder if, in the college’s eyes, it was I, and not the boys, who needed fixing.

Later that day, I called my mother. We were close, so I told her almost everything. Still, with a country of new distance between us, I wanted to frame things in a way that wouldn’t worry her. I mentioned what had happened with the soccer players, but I spent more time making an anecdote of my visit to security headquarters, with its burnt coffee smell and its wall of little screens. She laughed when I laughed, and then apologized.

“I’m so sorry that happened,” she said. We both knew that what this really meant was I wish I could protect you from everything. We were silent for a second, then I said, “It’s OK,” which we both knew meant, I know you can’t.

Evenings were different after that night. Even once I learned the group had meant no harm, I called the campus shuttle to ride a few blocks, or I left the library whenever a friend left or I did homework in my dorm. Logically, I understood nothing about the state of campus safety had changed. The only thing that had changed was my capacity to understand life at the brink of terror. That, it seems, was enough. It was a waiting room I dreaded returning to.

Every day, men did far worse things than the soccer players did to me; I had been, for so many years, luckier than so many. But that night on the quad was the first brick to smash the glass, shattering the window between my lived experiences and my anxieties of what the world could be. It was the first time I accepted that the stranger coming toward me down the street may not just nod or ignore me; that he might be wearing a mask when he blocked my path.

It was, in this way, a night for growing up.

I cannot remember what happened to the soccer players, or if they received any punishment. I am not sure what the charges would have been, because I am still not sure how to narrate that night. Should I let myself see the masked men as unwilling perpetrators, pressured into a drunken initiation ceremony by older men they felt they had to impress?

Other days I wondered if I should try harder to erase the whole night from my mind. Not because it was the right thing to do, but because it may make nights easier.

The word “victim” has its roots in the Latin victima, meaning sacrificial animal. Could I be a victim if the boys had not meant harm? I did not feel like one, not exactly. I felt like a girl who had left home and learned a lesson.

I had this in common with the boys. They who had just left home too, they who, like me, were learning their thresholds. What we could get away with. What could break us.

As the months passed, I wondered if that night stood out for them at all. In the college’s eyes, they were just sheep. Sheep in wolves’ clothing.

Though I knew the story of Little Red Riding Hood as a child, it did not make a big impression on me. My interest was held by stories about those who defeated the odds, not those who were defeated.

That’s why I was surprised to realize the further I got from girlhood, the more I thought of Little Red. At first I believed it was because the story carried all the lessons I needed to ditch. “Wolves are trapped in folkloric narrative that defines them just as firmly as women, and, like women, they are feared and reviled for their potentially predatory power,” writes South African fairytale scholar Jessica Tiffin.

If I just untangled Little Red’s story, I thought, maybe I could free us from it – free the women, free the wolves. I could be the huntsman, smirking with my axe. I see now this was wishful thinking.

In a fairytale of regressive lessons, it was not the lies in the story that tugged me back. It was its bulb of truth. That fear, some fear, was maybe useful after all.

Wolfish – Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear by Erica Berry is published in the UK on 2 March by Canongate Books (£16.99) and by Flatiron Books in the US.

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